July 7th, 2017

Yesterday I began my reexamination of Sharon Lerner’s Teflon Toxin series for The Intercept. I concluded by calling C8 (Perfluorooctanoic acid) the dangerous precursor chemical necessary to manufacture Teflon a cockroach chemical because the molecule—a backbone chain of eight carbon atoms to which are attached 15 Florine atoms along with one atom of Oxygen and one Hydroxide (OH) molecule—is extremely stable, so much so that the C8 we have manufactured will still be here when our sun goes nova.

Lerner goes on to make another comparison: to tobacco.

Eight companies are responsible for C8 contamination in the U.S. (In addition to DuPont, the leader by far in terms of both use and emissions, seven others had a role, including 3M, which produced C8 and sold it to DuPont for years.) If these polluters were ever forced to clean up the chemical, which has been detected by the EPA 716 times across water systems in 29 states, and in some areas may be present at dangerous levels, the costs could be astronomical — and C8 cases could enter the storied realm of tobacco litigation, forever changing how the public thinks about these products and how a powerful industry does business.

In some ways, C8 already is the tobacco of the chemical industry—a substance whose health effects were the subject of a decades-long corporate cover-up. As with tobacco, public health organizations have taken up the cause—and numerous reporters have dived into the mammoth story. Like the tobacco litigation, the lawsuits around C8 also involve huge amounts of money. And, like tobacco, C8 is a symbol of how difficult it is to hold companies responsible, even when mounting scientific evidence links their products to cancer and other diseases.

Corporations serve one function and one function only: maximizing shareholder value. So much so, that they are legally bound by fiduciary responsibility to achieve that goal. That doesn’t mean that a company can gleefully ignore any and all bad outcomes associated with a product or service—defending against, and paying out settlements in, damage suits is costly and reduces profits—but given the choice between hiding or correcting a threat, a corporation will always take the less expensive choice as Ralph Nader revealed in Unsafe At Any Speed. The chemical industry is no exception.

C8 would prove to be arguably even more ethically and scientifically challenging for Haskell [DuPont’s in-house toxicology facility]. From the beginning, DuPont scientists approached the chemical’s potential dangers with rigor. In 1954, the very year a French engineer first applied the slick coating to a frying pan, a DuPont employee named R.A. Dickison noted that he had received an inquiry regarding C8’s “possible toxicity.” In 1961, just seven years later, in-house researchers already had the short answer to Dickison’s question: C8 was indeed toxic and should be “handled with extreme care,” [Emphasis mine, JH] according to a report filed by plaintiffs. By the next year experiments had honed these broad concerns into clear, bright red flags that pointed to specific organs: C8 exposure was linked to the enlargement of rats’ testes, adrenal glands, and kidneys. In 1965, 14 employees, including Haskell’s then-director, John Zapp, received a memo describing preliminary studies that showed that even low doses of a related surfactant could increase the size of rats’ livers, a classic response to exposure to a poison.

Teflon had become, and continues to be, a huge revenue source for DuPont and while the company had no concerns about the end product, the C8 necessary to make Teflon was a growing liability.

Because of its toxicity, C8 disposal presented a problem. In the early 1960s, the company buried about 200 drums of the chemical on the banks of the Ohio River near the plant. An internal DuPont document from 1975 about “Teflon Waste Disposal” detailed how the company began packing the waste in drums, shipping the drums on barges out to sea, and dumping them into the ocean, adding stones to make the drums sink. Though the practice resulted in a moment of unfavorable publicity when a fisherman caught one of the drums in his net, no one outside the company realized the danger the chemical presented. At some point before 1965, ocean dumping ceased, and DuPont began disposing of its Teflon waste in landfills instead.

What DuPont discovered 10 years later, however, was that the disposal plan wasn’t working. C8 was showing up far afield from Parkersburg.

To get a sense of exactly how extensive that exposure was, in March 1984 an employee was sent out to collect samples, according to a memo by a DuPont staffer named Doughty. The employee went into general stores, markets, and gas stations, in local communities as far as 79 miles downriver from the Parkersburg plant, asking to fill plastic jugs with water, which he then took back for testing. The results of those tests confirmed C8’s presence at elevated levels.

Faced with the evidence that C8 had now spread far beyond the Parkersburg plant, internal documents show, DuPont was at a crossroads. Could the company find a way to reduce emissions? Should it switch to a new surfactant? Or stop using the chemical altogether? In May 1984, DuPont convened a meeting of 10 of its corporate business managers at the company’s headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, to tackle some of these questions. Results from an engineering study the group reviewed that day described two methods for reducing C8 emissions, including thermal destruction and a scrubbing system.

“None of the options developed are … economically attractive and would essentially put the long term viability of this business segment on the line,” someone named J.A. Schmid summarized in notes from the meeting, which are marked “personal and confidential.”

The executives considered C8 from the perspective of various divisions of the company, including the medical and legal departments, which, they predicted, “will likely take a position of total elimination,” according to Schmid’s summary. Yet the group nevertheless decided that “corporate image and corporate liability”—rather than health concerns or fears about suits [Emphasis mine, JH]—would drive their decisions about the chemical.

That pesky maximize shareholder value had raised its head, and DuPont began circling the wagons.

DuPont confronted its potential liability in part by rehearsing the media strategy it would take if word of the contamination somehow got out. In the weeks after the 1984 meeting, an internal public relations team drafted the first of several “standby press releases.” The guide for dealing with the imagined press offered assurances that only “small quantities of [C8] are discharged to the Ohio River” and that “these extremely low levels would have no adverse affects.” When a hypothetical reporter, who presumably learned that DuPont was choosing not to invest in a system to reduce emissions, asks whether the company’s decision was based on money, the document advises answering “No.”

The company went on to draft these just-in-case press releases at several difficult junctures, and even the hypothetical scenarios they play out can be uncomfortable. In one, drafted in 1989, after DuPont had bought local fields that contained wells it knew to be contaminated, the company spokesperson in the script winds up in an outright lie. Although internal documents list “the interests of protecting our plant site from public liability” as one of the reasons for the purchase, when the hypothetical reporter asks whether DuPont purchased the land because of the water contamination, the suggested answer listed in the 1989 standby release was to deny this and to state instead that “it made good business sense to do so.”

DuPont drafted another contingency press release in 1991, after it discovered that C8 was present in a landfill near the plant, which it estimated could produce an exit stream containing 100 times its internal maximum safety level. Fears about the possible health consequences were enough to spur the company to once again rehearse its media strategy.

Then the cancer clusters became evident.

In 1989, DuPont employees found an elevated number of leukemia deaths at the West Virginia plant. Several months later, they measured an unexpectedly high number of kidney cancers among male workers. Both elevations were plant-wide and not specific to workers who handled C8. [Emphasis mine, JH] But, the following year, the scientists clarified how C8 might cause at least one form of cancer in humans. In 1991, it became clear not just that C8-exposed rats had elevated chances of developing testicular tumors—something 3M had also recently observed—but, worse still, that the mechanism by which they developed the tumors could apply to humans.

DuPont, ever increasingly driven by a bunker mentality resorted to CIA-like tactics, declaring documents top secret and controlling distribution of sensitive documents with tracking numbers. The crack in the dam came, however, not human injuries, but from victims of a bovine kind.

In 1999, when a farmer suspected that DuPont had poisoned his cows (after they drank from the very C8-polluted stream DuPont employees had worried over in their draft press release eight years earlier) and filed a lawsuit seeking damages, the truth finally began to seep out. The next year, an in-house DuPont attorney named Bernard Reilly helped open an internal workshop on C8 by giving “a short summary of the right things to document and not to document.” But Reilly—whose own emails about C8 would later fuel the legal battle that eventually included thousands of people, including Ken Wamsley and Sue Bailey—didn’t heed his own advice.

Reilly clearly made the wrong choice when he used the company’s computers to write about C8, which he revealingly called the “the material 3M sells us that we poop to the river and into drinking water along the Ohio River.” But the DuPont attorney was right about two things: If C8 was proven to be harmful, Reilly predicted in 2000, “we are really in the soup because essentially everyone is exposed one way or another.”

Prescient words indeed.

More tomorrow in Part III of How Poisoned Is My Valley


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